The Mystery of Christmas

On Thanksgiving weekend I spoke by telephone with a friend of mine. She is a clinical social worker who for many years has counseled children and teenagers. Ann is very effective in her work with young people and has been a source of healing and guidance for many kids through the years. But she never had any children of her own.

She married later in life and her husband died very unexpectedly a couple of years ago. It has been a painful period of grieving since his death. But somehow God seems to find mysterious ways to heal us during such times, and for Ann one source of healing has been a little girl who lives next door.

Ann's neighbors gave birth to a baby not long before her husband died, and Ann soon became the "designated baby sitter." Ann and Katie have become fast friends, and it is delightful to listen to the way this child has brought new life to Ann. She mentioned that she kept Katie on the evening of "Black Friday," while her parents went shopping at the local mall.

After an evening of stories, Disney videos and several glasses of milk, Ann's little friend finally settled in to bed. In giving me her lively account of this evening, Ann said this to me: "You know, Robin. The smell of a sleeping baby. Now that's the presence of God."

Karl Rahner, one of the most famous Christian theologians of the 20th century, was well known for his meditations and prayers.

Rahner once wrote a prayer addressed to the incomprehensible God. In that prayer he expresses his feelings of awe and even anxiety as he stands before the infinite God. The greatness of God makes him feel very small and insignificant. He goes on to say, "You must adapt your word to my smallness, so that it can enter into this tiny dwelling of my finiteness -- the only dwelling in which I can live -- without destroying it."

Rahner knew well that what he asked of God is what Christians profess and celebrate at Christmas -- the mystery of the incarnation. Christians believe that in the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth God adapted his word to our smallness. In the child born in Bethlehem, God became one of us -- shared our fragile human existence -- in order to offer salvation from within the depths of our human experience.

This is not a sentimentalized view of Christmas, because we know that this child would grow and speak prophetic words that called people to conversion, words, which continue to challenge us today. But Christmas does reflect the mystery of the God who entered into "the tiny dwelling" of our finite existence. And by doing so Jesus showed us that no one is insignificant to God. Every person, of whatever race of creed, is of inestimable value in the eyes of God.

The days before Christmas are filled with activity, much of it frenetic, some of it refreshing. Amid this maelstrom of busyness, Christians would do well to find a few moments of quiet to reflect on the mystery of Christmas -- the mystery of the incarnation.

In this child born of an ordinary woman in an insignificant place, God entered into our world out of his inexhaustible love for us. On Christmas Christians proclaim that in the smell of this sleeping baby we indeed encounter the presence of God, God-with-us, Emmanuel.

Robin Ryan is a Catholic priest, a member of the Passionist community, who serves as associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is also the director of Catholics on Call, a national vocation discovery program for young adults, ages 18 to 30, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.